The Red Badge of Courage is an 1895 war novel by American author Stephen Crane. It is considered one of the most influential works in American literature. The novel, a depiction on the cruelty of the American Civil War, features a young recruit who overcomes initial fears to become a hero on the battlefield. The book made Crane an international success. Although he was born after the war and had not at the time experienced battle firsthand, the novel is considered an example of American Naturalism.
By March 1893, Stephen Crane had already published his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, at the age of 21. Maggie was not a success, either financially or critically. Most critics thought the unsentimental Bowery tale crude or vulgar, and Crane was forced to publish the work privately after it was repeatedly rejected for publication.
Crane quickly found inspiration for his next novel, however, while spending hours lounging in a friend's studio and having his portrait painted regularly. He became fascinated with issues of the magazine Century that were largely devoted to famous battles and military leaders from the Civil War. Frustrated with the dryly written stories, Crane stated, "I wonder that some of those fellows don't tell how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they're as emotionless as rocks." Crane returned to these magazines during subsequent visits to the studio, and eventually the idea of writing a war novel overtook him. He would later state that he "had been unconsciously working the detail of the story out through most of his boyhood" and had imagined "war stories ever since he was out of knickerbockers."
A shorter version of Crane's manuscript was first serialized in The Philadelphia Press in December 1894. This version of the story was then reprinted in newspapers across America, establishing Crane's notoriety. A longer final revision of the manuscript was printed in book form by D. Appleton & Company in October 1895. W. W. Norton & Company published the unrevised manuscript version in 1982.
The story is set during an unnamed battle of the American Civil War which bears numerous parallels to the historical Battle of Chancellorsville. 18-year-old Henry Fleming joins the Union Army despite discouragement from his mother (he has no father mentioned in the book, save that his mother says his father never drank alcohol), and becomes a private in the (fictional) 304th New York Regiment. In the weeks and days leading up to the conflict, Henry muses about whether he'll be brave, or will turn and run. During his first battle, Confederate soldiers charge his regiment, but are repelled. A few minutes later, they regroup and attack again. This time, when Henry sees some other people running and has his own fears that the battle is a lost cause, he deserts his battalion. However, when he gets to the rear of the army, he overhears a general saying that the army won anyway, and realizes he ran for nothing, and ashamed, he spends the rest of the day away from his regiment.
Escaping into a nearby forest, he finds a dead man decaying, alone in a clearing of the woods, and so comes face to face with the horror of death. He flees the forest, and finds a group of injured men returning from battle. One member of the group, the "Tattered Soldier", asks Henry (who is often referred to as "The Youth") where he is wounded, but Henry dodges the question. He also meets one of his friends, Jim Conklin, who has been shot in the side and is suffering dementia from bloodloss. He dies, and Henry runs away from the wounded soldiers.
Next Henry sees a retreating column, and grabs one of the men to try to ask for news. The panicked man hits Henry on the head with his rifle, bruising him. By this point, Henry is tired, hungry, thirsty, and has a head wound, and decides to return to his regiment regardless of his shame. When Henry returns to camp, the other soldiers believe his head injury resulted from a bullet grazing him in battle and care for him.
The next morning Henry goes into battle for the third time. They meet a small group of Confederates, and in the fight Henry proves to be one of the best fighters in the regiment. Afterward, while looking for a stream from which to get water with his friend, he discovers from the commanding officer that his regiment has a lackluster reputation. The officer speaks casually about sacrificing Henry's regiment because they are nothing more than "mule drivers" and "mud diggers". With no other regiments to spare, the general orders his men forward.
In the final battle, Henry acts as the flag carrier. A line of Confederates is hidden behind a fence beyond a clearing, and are able to shoot Henry's regiment with impunity, which is ill-covered in the tree-line. So, facing certain death if they stay, and disgrace if they retreat, the officers order a charge. Henry, unarmed, leads the charge, yet entirely escapes injury. Most of the Confederates at the fence run before the regiment gets there, and of the surviving soldiers, four Confederates are taken prisoner. The overall battle ends, and Henry and his regiment march back to camp.
In the book, very few characters are given names, and even those that are still referred to in single adjectives. Character names given in parenthesis.
- Young Soldier/The Youth (Henry Fleming)—an 18-year-old farmboy. Has read extensively about battles in the past, particularly the works of Homer, but has never been in battle before. Henry wishes to be courageous in battle because he fears for his reputation above all else, and wants others to think highly of him.
- Tall Soldier (Jim Conklin)—the army gossip. A strong, self-reliant pragmatist, he's proud to do his duty, talks much but complains little, and enjoys eating. After he is shot in battle, he wishes to die alone, and wanders off into the field before finally collapsing and dying.
- Loud Soldier/Friend (Tom Wilson)—very loud, boisterous, but ultimately dynamic character who at the beginning of the novel boasts that he's not afraid of battle, but before the first battle even starts, he nervously gives his letters and personal effects to Henry for safekeeping. When Henry returns to the regiment with the head wound, Wilson cares for Henry and lets him have his blanket. His demeanor also changes to one of generosity and quiet, and for the rest of the novel he's referred as "his [Henry's] friend" rather than "the loud soldier".
- Mother—Henry's mother, likely a widow. She discourages Henry from joining the army, but assents after Henry makes his decision. Before he goes, she gives him practical advice, such as following the commands of his officers, not keeping company that would be a bad influence on him, not to shirk his duties, avoiding alcohol, and sending his socks back home to be mended as soon as they get holes in them. Just the same, she cries as Henry leaves.
- Tattered Soldier—a man that Henry meets, wounded in his head and arm. He is covered with dust, blood, and burnt gunpowder from head to foot. He's soft-spoken and friendly, but badgers Henry with questions about the fight and where Henry is wounded. Soon after Jim dies, the Tattered Soldier starts acting delirious from his head wound, wandering around in a field. Henry leaves the man, a fact which later haunts him with guilt.
- Man with the cheery voice—a soldier that helps Henry back to his regiment after he's hit on the head, and talks with him as they walk. After the man returns Henry to his regiment, it occurs to Henry that during the entire walk he never bothered to look at the man's face.
The book was made into a 1951 film by the same name, which starred Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming and a miniseries in 1974, starring Richard Thomas as Fleming.
An episode of the children's television series Wishbone was based on the book.
The 2008 Czech film Tobruk was partly based on The Red Badge of Courage.
- R. W Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography, (New York: Braziller, Inc., 1968), 70.
- Linda H. Davis, Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephan Crane, (New York: Mifflin, 1998), 63.
- Corwin K. Linson, My Stephen Crane, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1958), 37.
- Davis, 64.
- Keith Carrabine, "Introduction," The Red Badge of Courage & Other Stories, (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2003), xix-xx.
- Eric J. Gislason, Preface to The Red Badge of Courage
- Screening of the Czech film 'Tobruk' at the Embassy". Embassy of the Czech Republic in Copenhagen. Retrieved on May 17, 2010.
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